Yesterday, on his birthday, Erlon Rivers was mistaken for a ghost. It had not bothered him at the time; a simple mistake, one easily shrugged off. Now, though, waiting on a park bench for the photographer to arrive, he couldn’t shake it. Azaleas grew to either side of him, flush and pink, but they brought him no joy, only the first prickle of watery eyes and a slight tickle in his throat. He fidgeted, checking his watch. It was ten till one, the time when Miss Smoak had said she would meet him.
While he usually liked to be early, this time it meant breathing in more pollen, and spare time for his thoughts to wander. For some reason the memory arose, now: the nervous laughter of his coworker, the casually-thrown epithet: ghost. It didn’t suit him. Erlon was very much alive.
It had been midway through his shift at the Elections Commission, the phone jangling in his ears from the front office desk. Either the receptionist had been out sick, or at lunch. He hadn’t paid attention, so he didn’t know. But it wore at his nerves, so he answered it himself.
He scribbled the caller’s information on a smudged leftover napkin, not finding any sticky notes on the desk. That had annoyed him, too. He hung up, sighed, and trudged with undue weariness back into the office’s rear recesses toward the supply cabinet. Beside the cabinet sat a single desk where Darrin Lane was auditing HR files.
“Shit,” Darrin yelped as the cabinet creaked open and Erlon reached for a new sticky note pad. “I didn’t hear you come in. Thought you were a ghost for a hot second!”
He’d smiled weakly, given an amused huff, and turned to exit the room again.
But why was he thinking about this now? Erlon wondered, stretching his arms over the park bench’s backrest. There was nothing cruel meant in it, merely a harmless startle, a bland joke. Yet it festered in his mind still. Erlon poked at it, prodded mentally.
He almost didn’t notice the photographer arrive. The difference, of course, was that he didn’t jump or yell when she sat beside him, pushing away a stray azalea with a casual hand.
“Hey, Mr. Rivers,” Devin grinned. “Sorry I’m a bit late. Lot of traffic on Sixty-one today.”
“Today and every day,” he murmured. “Hello, Devin. You talk to Lamar lately?”
“No.” Her browline furrowed slightly. “He’s been doing his own thing for a while.”
“Ah,” his deep voice graveled, and he cleared his throat. “Don’t sound much like the son I know.”
She glanced away, her eyes growing distant. “Well, we all change, I guess. Or at least I’d hope we would. And hopefully for the better.”
Erlon considered this, deciding not to reply. “You got those pictures for me, then?”
“All right now.”
Devin offered a small black flash drive, which he took and held in his hand. She’d offered to set up a file sharing site, but he’d wanted something tangible. It wasn’t what he imagined, though he wasn’t sure just what he had expected. Not an actual photograph, glossy and chemically developed; it was digital photography, after all. But the immateriality of the exchange felt disappointing in some vague, undefined way.
“I have the images on my iPad if you want to see them now,” she said, seeming to sense his hesitancy. She fished a thin silver screen from her shoulder bag and summoned an image, then swiped another into view, then a third. Erlon looked on in silence.
They were good photos. He could tell that much. Devin was a good photographer, and there was grace and humanity in the way she captured her subject, even someone as plain, dry, and uninspiring as him. But… Erlon swallowed. He wasn’t sure what to say. It wasn’t quite that there was something wrong. Was there? He leaned forward, took a closer look.
Was that really him?
Of course it was. He recognized his own face, weary and weathered, though younger looking than his years. But there was something…off. As if someone had removed a single feature of his appearance. An eyebrow missing, say. That wasn’t the case, though—both brows arched smartly over his narrow, impassive eyes. What was it, then?
He could find no words to express this to Devin. It sounded silly, even in his own mind. So he shook his head and set the thought aside.
“Thank you, Miss Smoak,” he smiled, hoping it showed in his eyes. “I see why Lamar likes your work. I’ll be sure to pass on your name, anyone asks.” He stood, fished a bill from his pocket, and handed it to her.
“I know I paid you on the web, but I didn’t know if you tip photographers.” He shrugged.
Devin beamed and shook his hand. “Thank you, Mr. Rivers. I appreciate the business, and your kindness. Tell Lamar I said hi if you see him.”
“And you do the same,” he said as she turned to leave. She was too far to hear by the time he stammered, as an afterthought, “And you can call me Erlon.”
He sat on the bench again, breathing deep. There were still twenty minutes left on his break, and he was in no hurry to return to work yet. He breathed deep, wishing he’d brought a coffee or water, something to wet his dry lips. The flowers wavered in a weak wind and his nose twitched, feeling the itch of spring allergies.
Erlon sighed, rose, and strode back toward his car, squinting in the sun’s bright gleam.
* * *
It wasn’t till the day after that he noticed the flaw. Among the assorted junk in his work email, Erlon found a memo from Jason Hamrick, director at the Commission, letting him know that his headshot had been added to the website’s staff page. Erlon clicked the link.
The staff photos had been Hamrick’s idea, and of course they’d had to pay out of pocket for their own headshots. Erlon had asked if it were mandatory, but his boss’ glare was all the answer he’d been given. They needed to put human faces on the Commission, he had said. The voters needed to trust that elections were fair, secure, well-managed.
The page loaded: a small array of photos against a red, white, and blue background, with blue accents in the menus and site headers. Erlon scrolled down. His photo was the last one.
It looked fine at first. Below the photo a simple caption read, ERLON G. RIVERS, VOTER REGISTRATION CLERK. He fingered the mouse’s scroll-wheel nervously.
That was when he saw it. When he scrolled up or down, it was plain: a single speck in the bottom left corner was missing.
It might have been a stray piece of white lint on his shirt, but when it moved against the red and blue of the site, it changed color along with the background. Now it was red. He scrolled again. Now blue, now white.
That’s what it was. The photo had a missing piece.
Erlon sighed. He clicked away from the browser, pulled up his work email, and typed a quick message to Devin, making sure to paste the page’s address so she could see herself. He clicked Send.
She replied in under an hour. I’ll take a look, her message said.
He felt better, knowing someone besides himself was aware of it. Erlon leaned back, ignoring the drawn-out squeal of the desk chair. His stomach growled, and he glanced at the clock on the wall.
It shouldn’t bother him, he knew. He had never been a vain person. If anything, Anette, his wife of twenty-five years, had always said he should take better care of his appearance, which he tended to neglect. But there was something in that empty space, that tiny grain in the corner of his photo, that nagged at the edge of his mind as he went on with the day’s work. That transparency, ghostlike.
Darrin’s joke, that nasally voice, echoed in his mind as his fingers clattered at the keyboard, entering data from the day’s registrations. “Thought you were a ghost for a hot second! Didn’t hear you there!”
Erlon wiped a bead of sweat from his brow and swore.
* * *
When he had gathered his thoughts, he rose and shuffled down the hall to Hamrick’s office, waiting patiently at the open door as his boss chatted with a colleague.
“Can you believe these people at state? Telling us how to run things when they’ve clearly never set foot in the county.”
He chuckled along with his coworker until Hamrick noticed him.
“What can I do for you, Mr. E?”
“Well,” he stepped forward, “I was wondering if you could maybe switch out that photo if I emailed you a new one.”
Hamrick gave a lopsided smile. “Why, what’s wrong with it? This ain’t a fashion magazine, you know.” The other two laughed together.
Erlon winced and scratched his neck. “I, uh, I just sent you the wrong one is all. It’s not the one I wanted.”
Hamrick looked him over. “Okay. Well, next time make sure first. And don’t expect me to make it a priority. I’m kind of swamped today.”
He nodded and backed out into the hall, relieved to be done with the exchange. He felt tired. Why did he care so much about it? It was just one missing grain on an Internet photo no one would ever look at anyway. Hamrick was right.
He slumped into his chair again, taking a moment before he resumed his duties. It was the most he’d spoken to his boss in one day, Erlon realized, in probably the past two months. Most times he came in, sat at his desk, exchanged a line or two of small talk for the day, did his job, and went home. He didn’t cultivate friendships at work. Work was a place to put in time, draw a paycheck, then resume his real life, or what scarce sketch of one he had. That was how he kept things simple.
Today, though, felt different. And he wasn’t at all sure he liked it.
* * *
“I’m sorry again about the photos, Mr. Rivers,” Devin said, sitting beside him again, scattering a faint yellow dust on the wood and wrought-iron bench. Different day, same pollen tickling at his throat. “I brought a different camera today, just to make sure. Two of them, actually.”
Indeed two cameras hung from her shoulders on neat black leather straps. Erlon smiled, grateful for her diligence.
The smile widened as she snapped new shots. He hoped it didn’t seem as fake as it did in the one on the Commission website now. But his smiles looked fake in all photos, no matter how hard he tried. It was draining, trying to look that happy when he had so much on his mind, so many things to think through.
Devin didn’t seem to notice. She seemed happy enough with her shots as she reviewed them on the camera screens.
“But you never know till you see them full-size,” she murmured. She transferred the camera’s memory chip into the laptop she had brought this time. After a moment she frowned and turned the screen toward him.
“This is…I don’t…Well, look.”
He did. Somehow the photos seemed less surreal today, though maybe it was because he knew what to look for. He nodded, satisfied. There was no tiny missing square in the corner this time.
“Thank you, Devin. This is much better.”
“No, look—it’s there.”
She pointed. Not at the corner where he was looking, but a couple hairs wide of his right eye this time.
“A missing pixel. Again. I don’t…” She shook her head and went silent.
Devin tried the memory card from the other camera. She pressed her lips tight in a line.
“I don’t understand. Three different cameras.”
He craned his neck to see what she was looking at. This time he did see. It glowed a faint, sickly green now, with no website background to show through it. Devin clicked to maximize the photo, taking up the laptop’s entire screen, and the empty grain turned pink. She scrolled upward, and the ascending pink dot flashed a bright blue. As if the screen had somehow malfunctioned—but only in that one spot. Only in that missing pixel.
Erlon blinked, trying to hide how much it bothered him. It was, after all, only a photo.
“Well, don’t worry about it, then,” he said. “I’m sure things like these happen.”
“No, Mr. Rivers, this is—I’ve never seen—” She cleared her throat, then looked him straight in the eye. “I honestly don’t understand how this is possible. These files are JPEGs. If I was doing this as a prank, if I wanted to mess with you and give you files like these, I’d have to convert them to GIFs. You can have GIF files, or PNGs, with partial transparencies, but there’s no such thing as a transparent JPEG.”
His brow narrowed. He didn’t know all the details she was telling him, but followed the line of thought well enough. “Well, then, what are you saying, Miss Smoak?”
She looked away, seeming to gave at something off at the far edge of the park.
“I’m saying,” she breathed, “that I’ve never seen this before. If someone told me what I’m telling you now, I wouldn’t believe them.”
Erlon, too, turned away. Studied the rough wood grain of the bench with detached curiosity. He honestly didn’t know what to say.
* * *
The rest of his day was quiet, uneventful. After work he read the day’s paper, trimmed the star jasmine from the trellis in front of his house and around the mailbox, ate the fried fish his wife had made for dinner.
Anette said little as they ate, but Erlon could tell that she was watching him, considering. Could she tell something was off? Did she notice he was more taciturn than usual?
If so she did not remark on it. He felt grateful for that. They’d been married long enough that she knew by now to let him work things out on his own time, and he would tell her about it once he had.
He tried to ignore it, but Erlon could sense something new opening up inside him. He didn’t want it to be there; it wasn’t what he would call comfortable, and that scared him a little. For years—decades perhaps—his life had been a comfortable one, bound by the rhythms of work and home, family and food. Now there was this new thing: a fissure. An awareness, maybe, of some irritant in his mind, an oyster’s grain of sand. Erlon couldn’t put a finger on it. He found himself watching his own thoughts, as if he couldn’t quite trust them, couldn’t fully believe in their own reality, their own trustworthiness.
What did it mean, this missing pixel, as Devin called it? What was the real meaning of a pixel, and what did it mean for one to be missing?
He tried, too, not to think what Devin had left unsaid. That the problem lay not with her camera (she’d tried three different ones, after all), nor with the computer screen (it persisted no matter the device), but with him.
“You doing okay, baby?” Netty offered a blanket as he lounged drinking his evening coffee, holding a book he couldn’t quite focus on. He smiled, waved the blanket away, and said. “Yeah, I’ll be all right. You going on to bed?”
“In a minute. Can you do that thing with my forehead?”
“You know it.” He smiled, removing his glasses.
That night Erlon dreamed, for the first time, of the three trees.